English Dictionaries

Want to rile many an English teacher? Point out that there is no central authority for the “rules” they fondly promote. How to spell a word (sulphur, sulfur), where to put a comma, ending a sentence with a preposition, when to use a capital letter, what a word means (“decimate”, “aggravate”) – and so on, and so on…

Other languages have a clear authority, usually parliament. French recently changed the spelling of 2,000 words and removed the circumflex.

Steven Pinker says it well in The Sense of Style: The Thinking Person’s Guide to Writing in the 21st Century (page 189)

That’s right: when it comes to correct English, there’s no in charge; the lunatics are running the asylum.

English rules are descriptive more than prescriptive, and the grammar Nazis have no solid foundations. You can see the parallel to religious literalist fundamentalism in their founding myth that there are only two options: all the traditional rules must be followed, or else anything goes.

Some of the above decisions are made locally. A firm, school, or publishing house often has a style guide. Problems arise when grammar Nazis or English teachers treat the “rules” of English as if they have the same foundations as, say, the rules of French.

Welcome to Anglicanism.

Anglican decisions are made locally. It follows the principle of subsidiarity – the organizing principle that matters ought to be handled by the smallest, lowest or least centralized competent authority. Decisions are taken at a local level if possible, rather than by a central authority. That lowest level, that local level, is the diocese, governed by the bishop in synod. Dioceses voluntarily cluster together to form provinces, for convenience handing over some of the authority that is rightly theirs to a provincial general synod. But there are usually checks and balances that give dioceses quite a weight in the making of significant decisions.

Of course, just as English teachers may teach in a French style, teaching rules as if they are founded upon some clear central authority (hence the agitation when this is challenged), so some (many) Anglicans speak as if they are part of a French-style church rather than an English-style church.

Roman Catholicism is a French-style church. The Pope is the universal pastor, has universal jurisdiction, even to choosing the local bishops. It is far easier, of course, being a Roman Catholic leader, in the sense that teaching and practice is well-defined, and foundations are crystal clear. Just as English teachers can so often use a French-style approach, Anglican leaders can be tempted to sound like Roman Catholic prelates.

That temptation was given into most publicly recently at the meeting of Anglican Primates when they said

we formally acknowledge … by REQUIRING that for a period of three years TEC no longer represent [an unclear] us on ecumenical and interfaith bodies, SHOULD not be appointed or elected to an internal standing committee and that while participating in the internal bodies of the Anglican Communion, they WILL not…

The Archbishop of Canterbury moved back from that so-tempting-for-leaders French-style to normal Anglican English-style soon afterwards, saying,

we ASKED that TEC, while attending and playing a full part in our meetings and all discussions, will not represent the Anglican Communion to other churches and should not be involved in standing committees for a period of three years. During this time we also ASKED that they not vote on matters of doctrine or how we organise ourselves.

The reality of is that, had these bishops used this English-style approach in their communique, it would have had the same result and not had the reaction from people who realised that these bishops had tried to step into a French-style (read Roman Catholic) ecclesiology.

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